The flexible vet practice



Practices offering flexible workplace arrangements may have the edge when it comes to attracting and retaining hardworking and committed staff, reports Merran White

While most vets are familiar with hard work, fewer these days are prepared to put up with long hours, stressful surgery stints and short holidays.

Moreover, workplace fairness and health and safety laws may mean that employees with family or carers’ responsibilities or who are under particular stress are legally entitled to flexible work arrangements.

Indeed, offering lifestyle-friendly workplace arrangements may give your practice the edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining good vets and vet nurses—and getting optimal performance from those you have.

The key to a functional, flexible practice is managing logistics and fairness issues to ensure staff, clients and the practice all benefit.

Why the trend?

“Historically, practices were less inclined to be flexible on hours,” says Dr Katrin Swindells, an emergency and critical care vet with WA Veterinary Emergency and Specialty (WAVES). “But nowadays, that’s all changing.”

The rise in ‘lifestyle-friendly’ work arrangements is part of a broader trend towards work-life balance. At the same time, 21st-Century technology and work systems are enabling more flexible arrangements, including job share, contract and offsite work.

“For my generation, long work hours were always part of the package,” recalls Vanessa Barrs, professor of Feline Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Sydney, and veterinary director of the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “But ‘work’ was also more narrowly defined, and less amenable to being done online or outside of work premises.”

These days, veterinary work isn’t just confined to consulting or surgery, which require an on-the-job presence, says Professor Barrs. “For example, ultrasonography might be practised by one person, trained in a larger practice, who provides these services on particular days and times. Some practices very successfully have job-sharing roles. Others have advocated for [an] online service that advertises single shifts online.”

Work-life balance doesn’t mean lack of dedication

Desire for flexibility is no longer viewed as a lack of dedication—rather, that your vet or vet nurse has family responsibilities or needs one day off a week to study.

In the WAVES clinic, which employs 80-odd vets and vet nurses, Dr Swindells says there is a trend towards more flexible work arrangements. “Probably the best example is people with children.

“The classic share roster rotates through every day and every shift, including weekends. That’s fair, but means it’s impossible for staff to do regular after-hours activity and won’t work for parents with kids in childcare. Or if your children need to be somewhere every Wednesday and … the practice expects you to work one Wednesday in three.”

As more women enter the veterinary profession and more men take on parenting and carer roles, the proportion of practice staff seeking workplace flexibility will likely grow.

Even those without family responsibilities may want specific days off or part-time work to allow more time for study, travel, favourite pastimes or their own pets.

The upside: happy, productive, loyal staff

Dr Swindells believes the pluses of retaining experienced vets make accommodating their needs worthwhile. “Seven vets in WAVES’ emergency department are parents—five mothers, two fathers”, she says. “Our roster has to convolute to fit their requirements. But they’re all very experienced veterinarians so it’s good value to us to keep them.”

Moreover, numerous studies suggest that workplaces offering a healthier work-life balance have greater success attracting and retaining employees, and that those in flexible work arrangements are more productive, satisfied and stable.

“Allowing greater flexibility in working hours and arrangements is essential for ongoing modernisation of the veterinary workforce,” Professor Vanessa Barrs contends. “It will certainly result in lower burnout, increased job satisfaction and longer retention of staff, in the workplace and the profession.”

“Burnout, depression and anxiety happen to both vets and nurses. And sometimes a bit of flexibility can help.”—Dr Katrin Swindells, WAVES

In addition, timely leave can help nip potentially problematic mental health issues in the bud. “Burnout, depression and anxiety happen to both vets and nurses,” Dr Swindells notes. “And sometimes a bit of flexibility can help.”

But perhaps the biggest advantage of offering flexible work arrangements is that they boost retention rates.

“We do get greater loyalty by offering more flexibility,” Dr Swindells says. “If you can keep vet staff happy, you’re more likely to retain them long-term.”

And turnover is costly. “It’s a significant loss to the practice every time you have to retrain new staff,” she continues. “It takes new people a while to learn the system, so you’re much less efficient.”

The challenges: scheduling and fairness

“It’s difficult for practices, especially smaller ones, to be flexible, particularly for shorter shifts,” Dr Swindells cautions. “So things like accommodating school hours can be difficult.

From a management perspective, she adds, trying to be flexible is important— but there have to be some limits, some give and take.

“It’s simpler for larger practices like ours to rejig the roster to accommodate this, but you still need to ensure fairness. That can be an issue, especially when some staff need lots of flexibility and others feel the workload falls more on them.”

Other incentives: subsidised upskilling

Not everyone wants Fridays off or shorter hours but there are other ways to ensure all staff feel treated fairly (while benefiting the practice). Professor Barrs suggests offering flexibility in leave provisions or support with continuing education.

Such incentives might entail sponsoring veterinary staff to upskill by paying them to, say, undertake specialist training in internal medicine or surgery in preparation for membership exams with ANZCVS, or do a distance-education course, such as in veterinary ultrasound.

Larger veterinary practices might incentivise valuable staff by sponsoring them to take practice management or MBA courses.

Ensuring consistency for clients

Loss of continuity for clients is “a potential downside unless actively addressed”, concedes Professor Barrs. Such continuity can be achieved, however, with smarter organisation—for example, by employing an online appointment-booking system.

“Using this sort of technology, it’s not difficult to schedule an appointment with my GP, who only works two days a week,” she says.

“We also need to adapt to the needs of clients and adopt business strategies to retain them in the face of a changing workforce.

Professor Barr proposes that vet practices emulate restaurateurs who keep client databases to enable customised service.

“We can use the same smart technology to mine data from practice visits and consumer spending patterns to deliver more personalised service—even if the face of the veterinarian is not the same at every visit.”


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